Slow teaching debrief

8 May 2019

Following their LTC presentation this fall, Neil Lutsky and Janet Lewis Muth, along with Donna McMillan at St. Olaf, gave out mini-grants to faculty who wanted to experiment with slowing down their courses in order to encourage more meaningful engagement with the course material and foster student wellness.

Last week, mini-grant recipients got together to debrief their experiences. The results were mixed, but I appreciated hearing about the range of things that faculty tried, as well as some of the challenges.

  • Barbara Allen (political science) started each class period with two minutes of breathing/meditation to give students the opportunity to center themselves in the classroom before diving into course material.
  • Kim Huynh (chemistry) reduced the number of problems she assigned for homework. She provided students with a list of suggested practice problems from the book but only required students turn in a handful of problems (similar to what they might find on an exam) for each assignment.
  • A couple of faculty asked students to turn off their phones in the five minutes before class started and use the time to engage in face-to-face conversation with their peers — with varying degrees of success.
  • A number of participants admitted some trepidation when they initially began their experiments.
    • What would students think?
    • What would colleagues think?
    • What do you choose to do less of?

I walked away with the sense that it was important for faculty who were engaging in slow teaching to explain to students the choices they were making in their teaching and why they were making those choices. These weren’t choices designed to make a course less rigorous, rather they were choices designed to foster student well-being.

Some faculty noted a tension. If students still have lengthy problem sets or readings in their other courses, they may not choose to engage more deeply with the assignments or readings in a class that is designed with slow teaching in mind, but simply move on quickly to other assignments. For example, Clara Hardy (classics) replaced several required class prep assignments with opportunities for students to engage in any activity that they thought would help their learning for the class and then asked students to report on what activity they chose, but some students didn’t effectively use this flexible learning opportunity.

I applaud all of the faculty who participated in the slow teaching experiment. Trying new things in the classroom is often more stressful than sticking with the familiar, but hearing the energy around some of the successes and the thoughtful reflection around some of the less successful experiments made me appreciative of how committed this group of faculty was to supporting student wellness in the classroom.

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